Studies in the Secret Doctrine:
The Law of Cycles
The illusory nature of time is the commonest of human experiences. The man in the street is aware of the fact that some hours of his life are longer than other hours; some fortnights pass like a day, while some moments seem an eternity. Reflection on these factors will enable the student to draw two conclusions (1) beyond the illusion of time there is a Reality; (2) the illusion of time is caused by man himself. That which underlies every passing moment and endures for ever though millennium follow millennium cannot but be the One Reality. Says The Secret Doctrine:
Time is only an illusion produced by the succession of our states of consciousness as we travel through eternal duration, and it does not exist where no consciousness exists in which the illusion can be produced; but “lies asleep.” The present is only a mathematical line which divides that part of eternal duration which we call the future, from that part which we call the past. Nothing on earth has real duration, for nothing remains without change — or the same — for the billionth part of a second; and the sensation we have of the actuality of the division of “time” known as the present, comes from the blurring of that momentary glimpse, or succession of glimpses, of things that our senses give us, as those things pass from the region of ideals which we call the future, to the region of memories that we name the past…. (I, 37.)
… Our ideas, in short, on duration and time are all derived from our sensations according to the laws of Association. Inextricably bound up with the relativity of human knowledge, they nevertheless can have no existence except in the experience of the individual ego, and perish when its evolutionary march dispels the Maya of phenomenal existence. What is Time, for instance, but the panoramic succession of our states of consciousness? In the words of a Master, “I feel irritated at having to use these three clumsy words — Past, Present, and Future — miserable concepts of the objective phases of the subjective whole, they are about as ill-adapted for the purpose as an axe for fine carving.” … (I, 43-44.)
Time, like everything else in manifestation, is triune. (Cf. The Secret Doctrine, I, 19.) The three aspects of Time are Past, Present and Future. The present hour, day, life, manvantara, is caused by the past and itself is the cause of the future cycles. The anticipation of the future makes us work in the present in terms of the memory of the past. Memory-gnyan is of the past; anticipation-ichcha is of the future; these two are linked by the active kriya-present. We think we are living in the past; we imagine we are living in the future; we believe we are living in the present — while as a matter of fact, we are living in the Eternal Now and know it not.
… For, in the words of a Sage, known only to a few Occultists:— “THE PRESENT IS THE CHILD OF THE PAST; THE FUTURE, THE BEGOTTEN OF THE PRESENT. AND YET, O PRESENT MOMENT! KNOWEST THOU NOT THAT THOU HAST NO PARENT, NOR CANST THOU HAVE A CHILD; THAT THOU ART EVER BEGETTING BUT THYSELF? BEFORE THOU HAST EVEN BEGUN TO SAY ‘I AM THE PROGENY OF THE DEPARTED MOMENT, THE CHILD OF THE PAST,’ THOU HAST BECOME THAT PAST ITSELF. BEFORE THOU UTTEREST THE LAST SYLLABLE,BEHOLD! THOU ART NO MORE THE PRESENT BUT VERILY THAT FUTURE. THUS, ARE THE PAST, THE PRESENT, AND THE FUTURE, THE EVER-LIVING TRINITY IN ONE — THE MAHAMAYA OF THE ABSOLUTE IS.” (II, 446.)
The illusion of time is within our own complex constitution. We ourselves are the makers of cycles — time-limits; the cycles of time run their course within ourselves; the circulation of blood in the human body is a cyclic process; the heart-beat and the pulse-beat are cyclic; cravings of the appetites and their satisfaction are cyclic; sickness and convalescence are cyclic; sleep and waking are cyclic; so are birth and death; prenatal life is cyclic; life on earth is cyclic — the four ashrama-stages, of (1) student-brahmacharya, (2) householder-grihashta, (3) contemplator-vanaprastha and (4) active altruist-sannyasin, were the device of the wise ancients who utilized the cyclic laws by making proper use of the four seasons of the human incarnation, which wise arrangement our civilization has set at nought. According to the teachings of the esoteric science, the commonly used definition for the age of man —”three score years and ten” — bespeaks an inner truth. The seventy years from one point of view indicates the perfect cycle for the development of the mahatmic being in seven decades in every new incarnation, which at a higher phase of development produces the unfoldment of the tenfold Dhyanic-avatara in cycles of seven years each. The same seventy year cycle works for the present stage of human evolution thus: the period is divided into halves, one of birth and growth, the other of decay and death. Each half is further divided into five periods of seven years each: (1) Birth of the human body, (2) the taking charge of his body by the Egoic consciousness at the age of seven, (3) the kamic change which matures the boy or the girl at fourteen, (4) the manasic fecundation which makes twenty-one the age of discrimination, (5) the spiritual unfoldment resulting from experience and suffering from the earlier stages at twenty-eight. Then the return of the cycle, also in five periods but in the reverse order, during which effectual maturing can take place: thus between thirty-five and forty-two the unfolded spirituality (on the corresponding cycle of the first half,i.e., between twenty-eight and thirty-five) is matured and perfected, and so on till the second childhood of innocence but not of ignorance, child-like but not childish, is shown forth between sixty-three and seventy. Just as the four stages of life are not observed by our civilization, just as there is caste-confusion in this Kali-yuga, so also is there dislocation, through ignorance, of the law above referred to, in our modern days, to the grave disadvantage of the individual and therefore to the race as a whole. In the light of what is said above, the student’s attention is called to the extracts from The Secret Doctrine which now follow:
When the Western Orientalists have mastered the real meaning of the Rig Vedic divisions of the World — the two-fold, three-fold, six and seven-fold, and especially the nine-fold division, the mystery of the cyclic divisions applied to heaven and earth, gods and men, will become clearer to them than it is now. … more than one physician has stood aghast at the periodicalseptenary return of the cycles in the rise and fall of various complaints, and naturalists have felt themselves at an utter loss to explain this law…. (II, 622.)
To demonstrate more clearly the seven in Nature, it may be added that not only does the number seven govern the periodicity of the phenomena of life, but that it is also found dominating the series of chemical elements, and equally paramount in the world of sound and in that of colour as revealed to us by the spectroscope…. (II, 627.)
Lest there be any misunderstanding, let it be noted that these periods are not arbitrary. There are children who are born before the nine-month period assigned to gestation is over, which means that for them the functions of that period are accomplished quicker. Similarly there are egos who take charge of their bodies before seven and others after; there are boys and girls who mature before or after fourteen and so on; men and women die before or live longer than their seventieth year. What is necessary for us to understand is the fact that each human incarnation is a cycle of ten stages, five on the ascending and five on the declining arc.
All this will clearly show, let us hope, that the Law of Cycles operates within man. Both cause and effect are psychological processes in the consciousness of the being and the period entailed forms a cycle in itself. Thus Kalpas are divided and sub-divided to the minutest divisions on the one hand, while on the other they multiply and expand till eternity itself is embraced. “Being is an endless cycle within the one absolute eternity, wherein move numberless inner cycles finite and conditioned.” (I, 221.)
These many cycles are interlaced, so that chemical changes in a molecule affect the physical cosmos as a whole and vice versa;the movements of the heavenly bodies have their reflections on earth and on the activity of the human jiv-atmas. In Isis Unveiled we are given a picture of the interlaced cycles which form the Great Circle:
… An Eastern artist has attempted to give pictorial expression to the kabalistic doctrine of the cycles. The picture covers a whole inner wall of a subterranean temple in the neighborhood of a great Buddhistic pagoda, and is strikingly suggestive. Let us attempt to convey some idea of the design, as we recall it.
Imagine a given point in space as the primordial one; then with compasses draw a circle around this point; where the beginning and the end unite together, emanation and reabsorption meet. The circle itself is composed of innumerable smaller circles, like the rings of a bracelet, and each of these minor rings forms the belt of the goddess which represents that sphere. As the curve of the arc approaches the ultimate point of the semi-circle — the nadir of the grand cycle — at which is placed our planet by the mystical painter, the face of each successive goddess becomes more dark and hideous than European imagination is able to conceive. Every belt is covered with the representations of plants, animals, and human beings, belonging to the fauna, flora, and anthropology of that particular sphere. There is a certain distance between each of the spheres, purposely marked; for, after the accomplishment of the circles through various transmigrations, the soul is allowed a time of temporary nirvana, during which space of time the atma loses all remembrance of past sorrows. The intermediate ethereal space is filled with strange beings. Those between the highest ether and the earth below are the creatures of a “middle nature;” nature-spirits, or, as the kabalists term it sometimes, the elementary.
This picture is either a copy of the one described to posterity by Berosus, the priest of the temple of Belus, at Babylon, or the original. We leave it to the shrewdness of the modern archæologist to decide…. (I, 348-49.)
To enable us to understand the interrelationship between man and the solar universe in which he lives and of which he is a part, let us consider — without going into particulars — the correspondence between the movements of both.
Our earth as a planet of this solar system has three movements — it rotates on its own axis, completing it in 24 hours; it revolves around the sun, completing it in 365 days; it participates in the movement of the whole solar system as it goes through the sidereal cycle of a little over 25,800 years.
The diurnal cycle may be regarded as corresponding to the daily experiences of the lower personal self. The routine of waking and sleeping is, of all of them, the most fixed for the human body, which has to be fed, exercised, cleansed periodically. Habits may vary but the sleep and waking periods are almost the same for same classes of human intelligences. The weeks of seven days, each forming the Lunar and the Solar months, affect the personality. Just as tides and ebbs of the ocean on earth are affected by the movements of the moon, so is our lunar body affected by the lunar cycle. Then there are the lunar and the solar years, with their seasons. The yearly cycle may be regarded as corresponding with one incarnation of the Individual Ego, every new birth being analogous to a new year. Lastly there is the sidereal cycle which may be regarded as corresponding to the whole cycle of evolution of the human jivatma. These physical cycles are reflections of psychological cycles. In this connection we might profitably extract from The Secret Doctrine its reference to the knowledge of the ancient Egyptians on the subject:
They had it; and it is on this “knowledge” that the programme of the MYSTERIES and of the series of Initiations was based: thence, the construction of the Pyramids, the everlasting record and the indestructible symbol of these Mysteries and Initiations on Earth, as the courses of the stars are in Heaven. The cycle of Initiation was a reproduction in miniature of that great series of Cosmic changes to which astronomers have given the name of tropical or sidereal year. Just as, at the close of the cycle of the sidereal year [25,868 years], the heavenly bodies return to the same relative positions as they occupied at its outset, so at the close of the cycle of Initiation the inner man has regained the pristine state of divine purity and knowledge from which he set out on his cycle of terrestrial incarnation.
Moses, an Initiate into the Egyptian Mystagogy, based the religious mysteries of the new nation which he created, upon the same abstract formula derived from this sidereal cycle, which he symbolised under the form and measurements of the tabernacle, that he is supposed to have constructed in the wilderness. On these data, the later Jewish High Priests constructed the allegory of Solomon’s Temple — a building which never had a real existence, any more than had King Solomon himself, who is simply, and as much a solar myth as is the still later Hiram Abif, of the Masons, as Ragon has well demonstrated. Thus, if the measurements of this allegorical temple, the symbol of the cycle of Initiation, coincide with those of the Great Pyramid, it is due to the fact that the former were derived from the latter through the Tabernacle of Moses. (I, 314-15.)
How analogous this theory is to the law of planetary motion, which causes the individual orbs to rotate on their axes; the several systems to move around their respective suns; and the whole stellar host to follow a common path around a common centre. Life and death, light and darkness, day and night on the planet, as it turns about its axis and traverses the zodiacal circle representing the lesser and the greater cycles. Remember the Hermetic axiom: “As above, so below; as in heaven, so on earth.” (Isis Unveiled, I, 294.)
Humanity is made up of individual units. If the Law of Cycles operates in reference to individuals, it equally works for groups: the tribe-races, family-races, sub-races, root-races, globe-rings, rounds, planetary-chains, solar-systems, sidereal-systems, are “the innumerable small circles” which compose the one Great Circle of the Universe referred to in that wondrous picture described in the extract from Isis Unveiled given above. From the same great book come the following:
They divided the interminable periods of human existence on this planet into cycles, during each of which mankind gradually reached the culminating point of highest civilization and gradually relapsed into abject barbarism. (I, 5.) … These cycles,according to the Chaldean philosophy, do not embrace all mankind at one and the same time…. (I, 6.)
… Plato divides the intellectual progress of the universe during every cycle into fertile and barren periods. In the sublunary regions, the spheres of the various elements remain eternally in perfect harmony with the divine nature, he says; “but their parts,” owing to a too close proximity to earth, and their commingling with the earthly (which is matter, and therefore the realm of evil), “are sometimes according, and sometimes contrary to (divine) nature.” When those circulations … in the universal ether which contains in itself every element, take place in harmony with the divine spirit, our earth and everything pertaining to it enjoys a fertile period. … But during the barren periods … the spiritual sight of the majority of mankind is so blinded as to lose every notion of the superior powers of its own divine spirit…. (I, 247.)
Applying the law of correspondence-analogy we can conceive that the Karmic Cycle of the human kingdom on earth has its rotatory, revolutionary and sidereal sub-cycles, under which (a) one class of self-conscious intelligences is evolving by constant reincarnations; (b) a second class of beings, coming only on the crestwave of human civilizations, is the revivifier of the innate ideas which are to be embodied by the race as a whole, as cycles run their course; (c) a third class who are the great Avatara-Incarnations who strike the key-note of an opening Cycle of Construction on the eve of earthly, intellectual or ethical cataclysms resulting from the activity of the Cycle of Destruction. The Secret Doctrine, Volume I, quotes and comments (pp. 640-41) on the following very significant passage in Isis Unveiled:
As our planet revolves once every year around the sun and at the same time turns once in every twenty-four hours upon its own axis, thus traversing minor circles within a larger one, so is the work of the smaller cyclic periods accomplished and recommenced, within the Great Saros.
The revolution of the physical world, according to the ancient doctrine, is attended by a like revolution in the world of intellect — the spiritual evolution of the world proceeding in cycles, like the physical one.
Thus we see in history a regular alternation of ebb and flow in the tide of human progress. The great kingdoms and empires of the world, after reaching the culmination of their greatness, descend again, in accordance with the same law by which they ascended; till, having reached the lowest point, humanity reasserts itself and mounts up once more, the height of its attainment being, by this law of ascending progression by cycles, somewhat higher than the point from which it had before descended.
The division of the history of mankind into Golden, Silver, Copper and Iron Ages, is not a fiction. We see the same thing in the literature of peoples. An age of great inspiration and unconscious productiveness is invariably followed by an age of criticism and consciousness. The one affords material for the analyzing and critical intellect of the other.
Thus, all those great characters who tower like giants in the history of mankind, like Buddha-Siddârtha, and Jesus, in the realm of spiritual, and Alexander the Macedonian and Napoleon the Great, in the realm of physical conquests, were but reflexed images of human types which had existed ten thousand years before, in the preceding decimillennium, reproduced by the mysterious powers controlling the destinies of our world. There is no prominent character in all the annals of sacred or profane history whose prototype we cannot find in the half-fictitious and half-real traditions of bygone religions and mythologies. As the star, glimmering at an immeasurable distance above our heads, in the boundless immensity of the sky, reflects itself in the smooth waters of a lake, so does the imagery of men of the antediluvian ages reflect itself in the periods we can embrace in an historical retrospect.
“As above, so it is below. That which has been, will return again. As in heaven, so on earth.” (I, 34-35.)
Two outstanding conclusions of this study on the Law of Cycles may be summed up thus: (1) We are the makers of cycles; through individual karma we draw the circle of individual reincarnations; through collective action we draw the narrowing or expanding cycles of communal and national decline or rise; through spiritual Karma we slowly but steadily contact the Primal Circle — which is Nirvana when it is entered self-consciously, pralaya when entered unconsciously. (2) Each human being lives in the close embrace of Nature, moves in that Nature, and has to realize that his Being is Nature. Wheel within wheel, cycle within cycle, the One Life in manifestation is the Circle of Time in Abstract Space, which is Duration. Says The Voice of the Silence:
Would’st thou become a Yogi of “Time’s Circle”? Then, O Lanoo:
Believe thou not that sitting in dark forests, in proud seclusion and apart from men; believe thou not that life on roots and plants, that thirst assuaged with snow from the great Range — believe thou not, O Devotee, that this will lead thee to the goal of final liberation.
Think not that breaking bone, that rending flesh and muscle, unites thee to thy “silent Self.” Think not that when the sins of thy gross form are conquered, O Victim of thy Shadows, thy duty is accomplished by nature and by man.
The blessed ones have scorned to do so. The Lion of the Law, the Lord of Mercy, perceiving the true cause of human woe, immediately forsook the sweet but selfish rest of quiet wilds. From Aranyaka He became the Teacher of mankind. After Julai had entered the Nirvana, He preached on mount and plain, and held discourses in the cities, to Devas, men, and Gods.
Sow kindly acts and thou shalt reap their fruition. Inaction in a deed of mercy becomes an action in a deadly sin.
Thus saith the Sage.
Shalt thou abstain from action? Not so shall gain thy soul her freedom. To reach Nirvana one must reach Self-Knowledge, and Self-Knowledge is of loving deeds the child.
Have patience, Candidate, as one who fears no failure, courts no success. Fix thy Soul’s gaze upon the star whose ray thou art, the flaming star that shines within the lightless depths of ever-being, the boundless fields of the Unknown. (32-34.)